Alyssa Rae Fennell has been waiting four weeks for the sheriff to show up at her rental home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to evict her.
She had tried to come up with a payment plan that her landlord would accept, but it was too late and she didn’t have enough money. The court issued a judgment against her in July. Now, the only thing standing between her remaining in her home of four years and homelessness is the long backlog of other evictions that the sheriff’s office must work through.
“It is heartbreaking,” said Fennell, 28. “Even if I was a millionaire, I would keep this house. I love my home. There are trees all around it. I have a garden in the back. But there is nothing I can do. It is a lose-lose battle.”
Pottawattamie County, where Council Bluffs and Fennell’s rental home are located, typically sees 15 to 18 evictions a month, said Rob Ambrose, the chief deputy at the county sheriff’s office. But Ambrose said the sheriff’s office had 63 evictions in July, and has had 25 already in August – and Ambrose expects many more.
“No one wants to see someone removed from their housing,” he said. “The tenants are in a tough position. And the people who own the buildings, that is their income.”
In Iowa, the moratorium on evictions expired at the end of May, and courts began hearing cases in person in July. Other moratoriums on evictions are expiring across the US and as many as 23 million renters are at risk of losing their homes, according to a June report by the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project, a coalition of researchers and legal experts. That could leave one in five renters at risk of eviction by the end of September.
“I would like to see it level off,” said Ambrose. “Unfortunately, with more virus cases, it may mean more closures. That will mean more people without a paycheck again. I hope that doesn’t happen.”
The casinos, hotels and restaurants in Council Bluffs have blinked back on after being shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic. But not all of the jobs have returned. The future has grown even more uncertain for many out-of-work residents now that the $600 bonus unemployment payment from the federal government has expired. As part of a new order signed by President Donald Trump, Iowa will now offer certain unemployed residents a $300 supplemental weekly payment instead.
If the coronavirus pandemic had never happened, Fennell says she’d likely still be a cook at a local Tex-Mex restaurant, and still be able to pay her $595 a month rent.
“This is entirely because of coronavirus,” she said.
When the restaurant went to carry-out only in March, she was let go. She was not successful in getting any unemployment insurance payments because she had only started at the restaurant in March and she said her previous employer, a gas station, protested her unemployment claim. Since April, Fennell says she has been living on the $1,200 stimulus payment she received from the government.
She has used it to buy food for herself, her dog and cat and to purchase personal care items, but has tried to hold on to as much of the money as she could.
By the time she got a notice on her door that she had three days to repay her back rent or go to court, she owed $3,480. That included back rent, late and court fees.
“I knew I couldn’t get that in cash,” Fennell said. “But I went to court to see what I could do.”
Fennell thought she would be eligible for a one-time rent grant of up to $3,200 through a CARES Act relief program offered by the state of Iowa, but she had not applied for it by the time she went to court. She borrowed the remaining $280 from her grandmother and brought that cash to court.
Once an eviction is filed with the court, it is at the discretion of the landlord whether they accept payment and waive their right to terminate the lease. Also, according to Iowa law, landlords are not obligated to accept money from a rental assistance program, except in a few jurisdictions like Iowa City and Des Moines that have passed specific ordinances requiring it. Fennell’s landlord, Meghann Youngblood, rejected her proposal.
Youngblood said there was nothing to indicate Fennell would be able to secure the grant money. “We were not willing to take a risk that she wouldn’t come up with it,” she said.
At the time, Fennell had a new full-time job and was earning $12.50 an hour. But after she missed a few days preparing for her court appearance, she said she lost that job, too.
But then Fennell got a glimmer of hope. She heard that President Trump signed an executive order that would protect people from eviction. However, it turned out that the order was not a freeze on evictions. Instead, the order said the federal government would “consider” whether any temporary measures to halt evictions would be necessary in order to prevent the spread of Covid. It would not immediately protect anyone from losing their home to eviction.
“I’m going to be homeless,” she said.
Fennell doesn’t have a car, so she has been putting her few possessions into a storage unit. Coronavirus-related health risks are preventing her from staying with family members, she said, and many of her friends are going through employment and housing crises of their own.
She considered pitching a tent by the river, but heard that was illegal. Shelters are an option, but most are not open to pets. While a friend said she’d take her cat, Fennell calls her seven-year-old dog, King, her best friend.
When the sheriff knocks, she said she plans to walk out of her house with her backpack and King and just keep walking.
In July, Youngblood, Fennell’s landlord and the co-owner of the Homesteads Group property rentals in Council Bluffs, did two things for the first time since March: she put on dress slacks and went to eviction court.
“The judge only asks the tenant two questions,” said Youngblood, who gave notice to four tenants that week, two of which were resolved prior to court. “Are you delinquent on your rent? How soon can you be out?”
When she wins, as she did in both cases, she gets a writ-of-possession for the property that allows her to remove the tenant. Typically, she says, she’s able to schedule the eviction with the sheriff for the next day. But she says the sheriff’s office told her in July it would take more than two weeks because of a backlog.
Eventually she and a team of seven others will arrive at the house, accompanied by the sheriff to pull the tenant’s belongings to the curb and change the locks.
“Every landlord in the county that can get an eviction is trying to get one scheduled,” she said. “But that puts us into August. I’ll have to make two more mortgage payments without getting the rent money.”
Youngblood says she has lost $35,000 in rent through July – either totally or partially unpaid – since the pandemic began.
That amount doesn’t include the sudden loss of rent as tenants vacate properties before they fall behind. At the end of July, a woman showed up at the office to hand over her keys, even though she still had six months left on a lease.
“She’s moving in with her sister,” Youngblood said. “She’s not going to get her deposit back. And now I have another vacant property.”
Still, it is the evictions that are hardest, she said.
“It’s horrible,” Youngblood said. “The whole thing is upsetting. There is no winning.”
But she says they have to be done to maintain rent rolls and keep the company going.
“We have been selling houses since June,” she said. “There was a tipping point where we had to sell or we would not be able to pay our property taxes come September.”
At the beginning of 2020, the company owned 198 properties, Youngblood said. Now they are down to 154.
But the margin is small. When a home sold recently for $90,000, the company cleared $30,000 in profit. Youngblood put $8,000 into an account from which she draws a $2,400 a month paycheck. The remaining $22,000 has gone back into improving homes to go on the market.
“Anything vacant I am going to sell, to keep us afloat,” she said.
By the middle of August she has given nearly 15 tenants notice, but has not yet filed any evictions so far this month. She is hoping to get them on a payment plan or they can get a rent relief grant in hand to pay their rent.
“I don’t want to go to court,” she said. “Once there is a recorded eviction, this person has a stain on their name.”
Mary Mason, director of the relief organization Inter-Faith Response, is worried about the flood of evictions coming. The group, which is based in Council Bluffs, provides a one-time payment of up to $500 directly to people’s bill collectors.
“Some we can address easily,” Mason said. “We make agreements with landlords, we pay a portion and the individual makes a payment plan for the balance. But it is very hard right now for those without an income.”
Most of the people served by Inter-Faith – which she calls an “agency of last resort” for “the poorest of the poor” – are people who have not been successful with their unemployment application or have not received stimulus payments.
“There is a flood of evictions coming,” she said. “Especially if federal unemployment support is not extended at least in part, or if there is a gap in those payments, that is going to be very difficult for people.”
In one week, she turned away 50 people who either didn’t already have one of the limited number of appointments available or who had already received aid in the past 60 days and needed additional help.
Because of federal funding from the CARES Act, there is relief money available, but the aid won’t reach everyone who needs it in time for them to stay in their home, said Erin O. Planalp, a managing attorney with Iowa Legal Aid.
“From a practical standpoint, it is difficult for people, who are already in crisis and may not have access to the internet or even a phone, to get connected to the right program and fast enough to stay in their home,” she said.
Mason said the amount of need is overwhelming and is likely to be lasting.
“The pandemic, and the aftermath, is going to negatively impact a segment of our community for many years,” said Mason.